To increase the number of yeses, increase the number of asks.

Do you belong?

03/31/2017

Last Thursday, Google announced the opening of a new Howard University campus at Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Howard is a private historically black university located in Washington, DC whose alumni include Stokely Carmichael, Thurgood Marshall, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Dubbed “Howard West”, the campus represents Google’s continued efforts to attract and retain black software engineers.

It’s an important step forward, and not just because of the symbolic connection to one of the nation’s most respected HBCUs. What I’m hoping for is an acceleration of the collisions between cultures. The dearth of black software engineers in the ranks of Silicon Valley companies isn’t simply a numbers issue — a leaky pipeline, as it were — it’s also reflective of the cultural and geographic separation of demographics.

Two of the most effective ways of breaking down cultural barriers in the workplace are are 1) storytelling and 2) the intentional formation of social bonds. Storytelling in this context is the invitation for everyone, regardless of job title, to share personal and candid stories about how they experience the world. Indeed, in my lectures and workshops, sharing my story reliably results in others feeling empowered to share theirs. Social bonds are formed when employees realize that the differences which divide them are at once trivial and interesting once the air is cleared. In fact, we can all relate to feelings of discrimination and marginalization if we create the space to understand and be understood.
And what’s next?

I’m preparing for a few weeks of travel, which makes me sound a lot busier than I really am, and the theme of my speaking engagements revolves around the notion of belonging. One might argue that it’s simply the latest term to inch us closer to acknowledging the suffocating effects of structural racism and systematic, historical discrimination experienced day in and day out by marginalized groups, but we’ll discuss that in another newsletter.
Let’s review:

Organizations became interested in diversity in the late nineties and early two thousands when financial companies were rocked by enormous discrimination lawsuits. Sex and race discrimination settlements in the hundreds of millions forced companies to institute programs to protect their bottom line. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy moral imperative, but it’s what got the ball rolling.

As diversity programs merged with social progress, organizations and those standing to benefit from them started taking a closer look at what was and wasn’t working. The term “inclusion” grew from this, which is increasingly lumped into conversations about diversity. They aren’t the same. If diversity is about representation, inclusion takes into account the subjective lived experiences of the folks who comprise this diversity. Diversity, as the saying goes, is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance (Vernā Myers).

Inclusion isn’t as easy to measure, as it’s not a simple issue of headcount. This is is where diversity slogans and taglines begin to ring hollow for many organizations, because it takes courage to see this through. This is why the technology industry has spent the past two years investing in diversity programs that don’t work. They’re safe, socially acceptable, minimize discomfort, and allow leadership to separate themselves from the results.

Belonging is the idea that a person and the elements that comprise their humanity are acknowledged. Many organizations seek to minimize the idea that difference exists in the workplace, to their continued peril. Not only does this not work in places like New York City, it runs counter to the research. Scholars studying social belonging at the University of Colorado in 2007 discovered that normalizing concerns about belonging can be productive. I’d conjecture that it’s essential.

Tech companies have been actively recruiting at HBCUs for years without much to show for it. There are a number of factors to explain this, but the one you’ll hear from black folks pursuing employment opportunities is feeling “othered” in their interactions and experiences. Microsoft found in the nineties that if you provide enough onsite comforts, engineers will spend most of their waking hours at work. Today’s leading tech companies invest heavily in comforts such as yoga classes, rock climbing walls, and massages…without realizing that there might be tens of thousands of potential employees who have precisely no interest in any of these perks.

“She wasn’t a good culture fit” then becomes a replacement for what could just as easily be replaced by “it was clear that she found the artificial reality we’ve constructed for 25 year old white males to be a bit strange and devoid of signals that she’d find a home here” or simply “She didn’t feel like she belonged here.”

The truth is available if we seek it out, but it takes courage. If you were the VP of HR at a multinational tech company on the world stage, would you commission a study that’s likely to surface clear evidence that your best efforts as an organization do more to exacerbate disparities in tech than to shrink them? If you answered “yes” then it’s likely that you wouldn’t have that position in the first place, or for long after commissioning the study.

This is unfortunate, because the data clearly shows that people from different backgrounds experience diversity and inclusion programs differently, and define these terms in different ways. What’s worse is that poorly-implemented diversity programs have been shown to activate bias and incite backlash. This suggests doing nothing is better than doing it poorly, but the former is no longer an option.

Diversity. Inclusion. Othering. Belonging. It’s a lot to keep up with, and even harder to engage with meaningfully. But this is the work, and there has never been a better time for organizations to step up and lead.

Catch me if you can: if you’re going to be at the Forum on Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis, Bright Horizons’ 2017 Solutions at Work in Austin, The Culture Conference in San Francisco, or the Freedom and Fairness Workshop in Oakland, holla.

If not, enjoy last week’s criminally good articles on Abernathy.

Seriously, writers like Alonge and Jourdan make my work as a publisher a million times easier. My editor, however, must continue to fight with me over hyperbole (smile).

Have a great weekend.

I’ve been publishing Abernathy for more than two years now, and in that time I’ve met a number of publishers looking to make a similar difference in the world. One of the challenges that I see new publishers grappling with is how adjustments are made, especially related to how publications make money. I can certainly relate, and I’ve got an evolving revenue model to prove it.

But one of the things I did before launching that continues to benefit the publication and how it’s received was deciding at the outset what it was, what it wasn’t, and what it stood for. We decided, for example, that we were selling sponsorship and impact rather than subscribers and page views. This informs the kind of articles we publish and the data we’re happy to share with sponsors. I’ve left a lot of money on the table by not writing listicles and selling ads, but I’ve gained so much more in the process.

Having a point of view and exploring event production has changed the nature of the conversation with sponsors. Not just because there are new offerings to sponsor, but also because of the conversations with attendees and subscribers about the ongoing journey that I’m privy to as a result. Yes, it’s helpful to know how black folks consume media and that we have a trillion-dollar buying power, but what’s invaluable is understanding the worldview of the black software engineer who feels like giving up every day because of his company’s culture.

He’ll share things with me that his HR team wouldn’t think to ask, and I can create editorial and offerings and events that address those needs. The macro—strengthening and expanding the pipeline of underrepresented folks working in tech—is informed by the micro. Producing hyper-targeted events and crafting experiential workshops is exponentially easier with a lens into the nature of the challenge we’re up against.

And as I mentioned last week, the linchpin in all of this work is trust. Thanks for yours. Enjoy this week’s articles and spotlights on Abernathy.

No shortcuts

03/05/2017

The conversation dominating diversity and inclusion in tech is largely centered around the numbers—namely, how many women and underrepresented minorities comprise the workforces of top tech companies. But what lived experiences, worldviews, and perspectives are represented by the folks who comprise those numbers?

If your parents were survivors of segregation and the Jim Crow South, you might, for example, be skeptical of companies touting their inclusive culture when their board of advisors is comprised of 95% white males. On the other hand, if you were socialized in a way that equipped you with the tools to thrive in largely-white, homogenous spaces, you might have understandably grown weary of diversity and inclusion conversations since they don’t seem relevant to your lived experience.

These worldviews aren’t mutually exclusive, either. One of the dehumanizing aspects of racism’s legacy in the United States is that stereotypes continue to pervade our national consciousness. The reason I started Abernathy was to provide a counterpoint to the reductive ways in which black men are portrayed in the media. My friend Will Madison isn’t one of the best black software engineers I know, he’s one of the best software engineers I know, period. By the same token, Raye Montague wasn’t just the first black person or the first woman to design a US Navy ship via computer, she was the first human being to do so. We do a disservice to stories like these by relegating them to Black History Month and diversity campaigns.

The tokenizing of African Americans by the media and ill-informed marketing executives contributes to the problems hiring managers are facing: it’s not a lack of opportunity that’s at the root of poor representation, it’s the lack of trust. The whitewashing of United States history has resulted in a cultural amnesia and ignorance that continues to divide our nation. And so I think of myself as a trust broker in my work as an inclusion strategist—I sit at the intersection of an eminently qualified audience of black professionals, and a growing cadre of thoughtful organizations looking to build trust and rapport with them.

No amount of budget can overcome a lack of trust, and the highest-leverage elements of trust are completely free in fact: courage, a willingness to make mistakes, and a reputation for telling the whole truth.

No shortcuts, sorry.

By any measure, I had a lot of things going for me ten years ago. I was a high-flying enterprise technology consultant for a great company, the owner of a brand new five bedroom house in Atlanta, and it had scarcely been a year since I’d graduated from college.

I was on 100% travel, so I flew to the client site on Mondays and back home (or wherever) on Thursdays. This was a fabulous opportunity for a single, freshly minted college grad, but after the first hundred or so flights, the novelty started to wear off. It was nice to feel important and face daily professional challenges with a brilliant team of professionals from all over the world, but I couldn’t imagine doing that work for the next twenty years.

I had a small web design operation on the side, which I started after building the first version of my personal website for a class project. It was a great way to amplify the soft skills and extracurricular activities that made me a strong candidate, and I started building similar websites for my ambitious non-technical friends when they saw how well it was working for me. Small business clients found me through word of mouth and before you knew it, my career as an accidental freelancer began in earnest.

I devoted many nights and weekends to that side hustle, and it was the skills I learned while serving my freelance clients that allowed me to change my life when I was unhappy with its direction. After three years of working for The Man—not to mention two anxiety attacks in one weekend that we can talk about some other time—I quit.

This business allowed me to walk away from my job and make a living while I figured out what was next. Most importantly, I decoupled my income from my physical location. This allowed me to go on some wonderful adventures like helping to launch a book publishing startup with Seth Godin and Amazon.com, working with the founding CTO of Mashable.com, living in Argentina, being on national television (iTunes link), and appearing in documentaries. But the greatest benefits were emotional and psychological. I had freedom, agency, and control over my environment. I hadn’t yet arrived at what felt like a calling, but I had the skills to keep the lights on. So I made the decision to optimize my life for freedom and autonomy rather than income, and this changed everything.

I learned that once you cut the cord, you only have to cut it once—I’ve been making a living at the intersection of tech and publishing and media for more than six years now. I still do a bit of tech consulting because it’s fun and yes, lucrative, but also because of the freedom it affords me to build a media company on my own terms and provide thought leadership for my corporate clients.

Technology specifically presents a number of unique challenges and opportunities for folks of color, and it’s not enough to retweet articles about the progress (or lack thereof) in the tech sector as it relates to tech diversity. A lot of the disparities we see in tech aren’t simply a function of racism and discrimination, a large part of it is cultural knowledge and awareness that’s passed along socially and generationally. By discussing these complex topics honestly and regularly, the world of tech becomes less of an insiders club and a diversity of folks can unleash their brilliance in the organizations that need it.

Dev Bootcamp—the original coding school—is doing the work, and their mission is in line with what I care about bringing to my audience: a greater awareness of what’s possible, both personally and professionally. On Wednesday, February 22nd I moderated the Abernathy Black Tech Panel at the Dev Bootcamp HQ on Wall Street in New York City. Joined on the panel by Career Developer Bie Aweh and program alum Chris Coles, we had a wide-ranging discussion about inclusion in tech, the culture of software development, and what we can all do to move the industry forward.

The point of the event and the discussion was to illustrate a range of possibilities for folks looking to transition into tech, regardless of whether they want to write code for a living. Bie isn’t a software engineer, Chris writes code for a living, and I’m somewhere in the middle. In addition to illustrating what life looks like for folks who participate in the 18-week Dev Bootcamp program, we discussed the role of community, belonging, networking, and self-care for historically marginalized talent making a living in tech.

To kick off the program, Ari from WeWork joined me for an a capella rendition of Ebony And Ivory.
That’s not actually true, but this is a great photo of Ari.

WeWork and I connected in 2012 when I spoke at their first Summer Camp in the Adirondacks. This gives me significant street cred when I mention it to WeWork employees, which is hilarious since I spent most of that trip having the time of my life with a handful of my best friends.

WeWork is all about collaboration, as their open floor plans will attest. Coworking spaces have been my saving grace since leaving corporate America, and WeWork’s offices are always teeming with creative professionals and ambitious entrepreneurs. They offer a number of flexible membership options for everyone from people like me who bounce around a lot and simply need wifi and coffee, to growing startups that don’t want to be their own landlord.

Dev Bootcamp’s HQ on Wall Street is a short walk from WeWork’s Fulton Center location, where they are offering a free Hot Desk membership for the month of March for everyone who attended the event. Interested humans should email fultoncenter@wework.com for more information on how to sign up.

The reason I sought out Jopwell for this event is because of their story, what they stand for, and the crucial role they play for people of color. This isn’t just about qualified candidates being able to pay rent, it’s about historically marginalized professionals building the generational wealth previously unavailable. Working for famous companies that pay well is a badge of honor, sure, but what I care about is my friends putting their children through college.

Jopwell is a career resources platform created by and for people of color—Ryan and Porter are two black men who left prestigious investment banking roles to help corporations recruit and retain diverse talent. Some of the nation’s most well-respected institutions from Y Combinator to Andreessen Horowitz and Kapor Capital have backed their efforts and for the past three years they’ve been connecting Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American students and professionals to opportunities at over 50 of America’s leading companies across a variety of industries who are actively seeking to hire diverse candidates.

One of the reasons folks of color are poorly represented in many industries isn’t simply because recruiting, interviewing, and hiring practices need an overhaul—it’s also because many diverse candidates don’t feel like applying is worth their time. Searching for jobs in a competitive industry with the economy in turmoil is inherently unpleasant as it is, and can feel like an exercise in futility.

The beauty of Jopwell lies in the promise: applying for a role through their platform ensures your application is considered. Not only do they help you identify interesting roles, they offer an array of networking, skill-building, and recruiting events to serve their community. To boot, they’ve got a content platform called The Well that surfaces stories and insights from industry insiders.

Jopwell was recently recognized by Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies of 2017 and Talent Manager Nadia was on hand to share what 50,000 active members already know—Jopwell takes a lot of the pain out of the job hunt for people of color. Email [email protected] if you have questions about the platform and opportunities, and you can sign up here.

An event is worth doing when you have a photo that makes it look like you know what you’re talking about. We’re done here.

 

Phillip actually isn’t actually an angry guy, but this photo could be entered into a caption contest.

 

Rob trying to explain why there wasn’t a chocolate fondue waterfall. Futile.

 

Alan Johnson (right) works for Artsy and came to show support.

 

My neighbor Anthony Brown chats with my friends Robin Zander and Emily Doherty who were in from SF.

 

New friends from Year Up! Shouts out to Briana (tan pants) for bringing her colleagues.

 

Jordan Thomas, a product manager at HBO, drops some knowledge on us.

 

Bie Aweh explaining how she feels about the state of “diversity and inclusion” in tech.

 

Derby, VP at Hackerati, both hired panelist Chris Coles and pulls no punches regarding how unacceptable the state of diversity is in tech.

 

So meta.

 

Chris was probably explaining why Node.js is the future of the web as we know it.

 

Rob was a gracious host and I look forward to putting more events together with Dev Bootcamp.

 

Jopwell should license this photo. Holla at me, Ryan and Porter.

 

Nadia doing what she does best.

 

Photos by Vonecia Carswell Photography.

Speed might seem like the goal when executing on a new project, but speed for the sake of speed? Almost certainly not.

Moving quickly might allow you to gain market share and announce to the world that you mean business, but reckless forward motion can undermine your project and necessitate costly damage control.

A few well-placed steps forward at a brisk and sustainable pace might be better in the long run than a flat-out sprint. Alas, there’s no universal rubric for calibrating the appropriate rate of progress, but deciding at the outset how speed is defined on your project is certainly worthwhile.

I’m co-hosting a dinner tonight with Christine Lai and Nikita Mitchell in midtown NYC at 7pm and we have a couple spots left. If you fancy a nice evening with a few ballers, drop me a note.

It’s part of a dinner series for folks from all walks of life to meet and connect and build. I’ve met friends, collaborators and most importantly fellow FSU alums at dinners in the past.

Groups that have previously attended:

You know, your run-of-the-mill overachievers and world-shapers. Dinner will be a break-even ($49) prix-fixe situation at Industry Kitchen. Ping me if you or someone we should know has a slight deficit in the amazing dinner plans department this evening.

Stay balling, friends.

As you are

02/23/2017

The more I grow and heal and cultivate a posture of openness in my life, the more I find myself moved by small gestures of kindness and thoughtfulness. (Back when I was on Facebook, the videos of soldiers coming home and surprising their children at home/school left me emotionally incapacitated in the best way possible.)

I’m feeling a bit under the weather after producing an event yesterday and offered a disclaimer to someone I’m meeting with tomorrow that I won’t be in peak form. He—another straight black male—responded that whatever parts of myself I can muster will be just fine.

The world could use a bit more of this, and I’m grateful for the reminder that interrogating our ideas of what comprises black masculinity is worthwhile. However we want to show up is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with being soft and gentle and open.

Just as importantly…I needed that.

Hack your future

02/07/2017

On Wednesday, February 22nd at 6:00pm, Abernathy is doing an event with Dev Bootcamp in New York City. It’s the Abernathy Black Tech Panel: Destiny, Technology & Empowerment and will feature a panel discussion about how high-demand technology skills, lifelong learning, and investing in education are tools for empowerment.

Dev Bootcamp was the original coding school—or “short-term, immersive developer bootcamp” as it were—and I’m excited to be working with them. Joining me on this panel will be Bie Aweh and Christopher Coles, a career developer with Dev Bootcamp and an alum of the program respectively.

The event is free, doors open at 6pm, and I hope to see you there.

For most savvy marketers with great products and services, it’s the storytelling—not the offering—that needs the most work. Instead of racing to the bottom by competing on price and minutiae, we should tell better stories.